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Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Jesus on Justice: A Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness
The 1960s were a decade of tumult and turmoil in the political and cultural
arenas for the United States and a decade of commotion and confusion in the religious arena
for the Catholic Church. While the Church dealt with changes directed by the Second Vatican
Council (1962-1965), the nation coped with vocal contingents demanding civil rights, voting
rights, women's rights, plus a just and speedy resolution to the conflict raging in Vietnam.
At first glance, it would seem unlikely that these concerns of church and
state would overlap. That they very quickly became closely intertwined can be attributed
chiefly to the appearance of large numbers of clergy and professed religious among those
marching to promote that multiplicity of civil causes. The prominence of clerical collars
and religious habits still being worn at the time startled most Catholics and utterly shocked
some. What were they doing there? Did they have any business there? Shouldn't they be back
in their rectories, convents and monasteries doing "religious" things? What in the world
would Jesus think? That's precisely the question this issue of Scripture from Scratch intends
The Righteous Jesus of Matthews Gospel
These causes and others like them came to be labeled social justice issues.
At their heart lay the increasingly strident insistence that there exist certain indispensable
essentials that are the entitlement of every person on earth simply by virtue of their
shared humanity. The list of basic human rights includes, but is not limited to, food,
clothing, shelter, medical care, education and adequate employment. Certainly they should
head every civil government's agenda, but where, if anywhere, does the Church find a place?
The foundation for Christianity's involvement in social issues was poured by many of the
prophets of the First Testament. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Amos and others called loudly and often
for the fair treatment of the disadvantaged. Jesus was unquestionably familiar with their
words. In fact, as we shall see a bit further along, he used Isaiah's social justice platform
in the address that launched his own public ministry.
While justice is a theme that weaves its way through most Second Testament
books, it is perhaps Matthew who gives it the greatest emphasis with Luke following closely.
Righteousness is one of the primary themes in Matthew.
Among the Beatitudes, which form the heart of Jesus' powerful Sermon on the
Mount, we find, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will
be filled" (Mt 5:6). That positions this virtue squarely in the center of Jesus' enduring
message, so it might be wise to brush up on its definition.
What exactly is meant by righteousness? In essence, it denotes actions that
are morally right or justifiable in conjunction with divine law. A hunger and thirst for
righteousness arises, then, from an outrage and indignation over injustice and immorality.
Jesus' concern over the social sins of his day is indisputable. In a short
parable, he compared the kingdom of heaven to "a net that was thrown into the sea and caught
fish of every kind. When it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into
baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come
out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where
there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." He then asked his audience, "'Have you understood
all this?' They answered, 'Yes'" (Mt 13:47b-51). But did they really understand? Do we?
Apparently not as well as we might for, after two millennia, our world still reels with
poverty, prejudice, and all manner of social ills.
Perhaps nowhere does Jesus speak as forcefully on human relations as he does
in his final sermon recorded in Matthew, the Eschatological (simply means the study of
the last things) Discourse. Only this Gospel records the familiar parable of the sheep
and the goats. It is worth noting the traits that separate the two groups. The sheep at
the Father's right hand will be invited to inherit his kingdom because they fed the hungry,
gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked and visited the imprisoned.
Conspicuously absent from the list are supposedly religious activities, such
as prayer, fasting and pilgrimage. Jesus insists that those five deeds and others like
them are religious activities. "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least
of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Mt 25:40b). Conversely, the goats
on his left hear, "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these,
you did not do it to me" (Mt 25:45b). The compelling final line says it all, "And these
will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Mt 25:46).
The people of God had been enjoined to treat one another well as far back
as the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. One of many such injunctions reads:"You
shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You
shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will
surely heed their cry" (Ex 22:21-23). Neighbors included resident aliens. Special consideration
was due to widows and orphans who had no recourse in that society. Matthew, writing for
a primarily Jewish audience, highlights Jesus' grounding in that long tradition.
The Compassionate Jesus of Lukes Gospel
Luke records what amounts to an inaugural address opening Jesus' public life.
Like presidential speeches in our own time, this one laid out Jesus' priorities—where he
could be expected to concentrate his efforts in the days ahead. Reaching back into that
honored prophetic tradition of commitment to social justice, Jesus spoke to his hometown
neighbors, reading in the Nazareth synagogue from the writings of Isaiah: "The Spirit of
the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has
sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let
the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Is 61:1-2).
Jesus' commitment to the disenfranchised was foretold at his birth by the
visit of the shepherds. These are not the majestic magi of Matthew's Gospel. Neither are
they the well-groomed figures of many Christmas cards. To the contrary, they represented
one of the lowest rungs on the social ladder. In making them the first to acknowledge Jesus,
Luke is indirectly highlighting those who will benefit most from the coming of God incarnate.
There would be others.
Years later, when John the Baptizer sent his disciples to establish Jesus'
true identity, Jesus replied, "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind
receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are
raised, the poor have good news brought to them" (Lk 7:22b).
Matthew's Sermon on the Mount becomes the Sermon on the Plain in Luke as
Luke would be disinclined to place Jesus above the people. It is the norm in Luke's Gospel
for Jesus to be shoulder to shoulder with persons from all walks of life. And while Matthew
has Jesus begin his beatitudes by addressing the poor in spirit (Mt 5:3), Luke's Jesus
looks directly into the eyes of his humble audience and says to them, "Blessed are you
who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Lk 6:20b). In a culture that often saw
poverty and illness as penalties for sin, such a statement would set off reactions ranging
from bewilderment to shock. As he so often did, Jesus here turned the long-accepted value
system on its head.
Religious leaders often found Jesus' association with those generally mistreated
or totally ignored by those of higher social rank galling, "And the Pharisees and the scribes
were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them'" (Lk 15:2).
An acerbic response to such self-righteousness is found in the next chapter
where Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarusfound only in Luke (16:19-31).
As the story goes, Lazarus (a fictitious character as opposed to the very real Lazarus
Jesus raised to life) lay at the door of an exceedingly rich man's home. The inference
is that he was there for some time. He "longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from
the rich man's table." Over the course of time, both men died. While Lazarus found himself
comforted at last in the company of Abraham, the rich man was consigned to the torments
of Hades. There is no suggestion anywhere in the parable that the rich man ever actively
abused Lazarus; he simply ignored him, possibly walking over or past him day after day.
We may find a lesson here for our own day. It's undoubtedly safe to say that
no one reading this article has ever inflicted physical harm on a member of a disadvantaged
group. What Jesus makes abundantly clear is that our sin may lie in blocking them from
our consciousness, pretending that they don't exist.
In our defense, we frequently do this because we suffer from an overload
of stories on the news, depicting the plight of people the world over, leaving us to wonder
what one individual could possibly do to alleviate such pain. Certainly no one can do everything,
but Jesus seems to urge us to bear in mind that everyone can do something.
Lepers, tax collectors, Roman soldiers and, strikingly, women all come in
for their share of Jesus' attention in Luke's Gospel. These were the groups most likely
to be found on the fringes of first-century society. While we still have tax collectors,
we're a little short of Roman soldiers and lepers in America today. Who has taken their
place on the list of the marginalized? Women remain there although their status in American
society has markedly improved. That is not the case, however, in other parts of the world,
particularly Third World nations.
Who would Jesus go out of his way to fraternize with today? Would he, too,
be in the thick of his modern disciples who try to rectify the wrongs of the 21st century?
Reading Luke's Gospel leaves little doubt. The Jesus he portrays even goes to a criminal's
shameful death suspended between two convicts. He came into the world surrounded by the
lowliest individuals, and he left it the same way.
Our Marching Orders From James Letter
The brusque Letter of James could probably be summarized in a single sentence, "Don't
just stand there; do something!" For James, all the devout piety in the world isn't worth
much if it isn't backed up by action. This short letter, which is usually attributed to
the James who was a blood relative of Jesus, has occasionally been misread to suggest that,
if we just put our shoulders to the wheel, we can work our way to heaven. Actually, he
does not suggest that at all. Let's allow him to speak for himself: "But be doers of the
word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves" (Jas 1:22). "What good is it, my brothers
and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a
brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace;
keep warm and eat your fill,' and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the
good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (Jas 2:14-17).
All of those priests and bishops, religious sisters and brothers who fell
in with Americans from other traditions in those heady post-Vatican II days, marching to
attain basic human rights for all, may have heard James' marching orders echoing down the
centuries. Would Jesus have joined them? Unquestionably! He figuratively marches with us
backing the causes of the early 21st century. Our task is to make sure we do, indeed, have
a cause for him to support.
Virginia Smith, co-creator of Scripture from Scratch and a frequent
contributor, is the author of God for Grownups and Life Is Changed, Not
Ended (Thomas More/Ave Maria Press).
Next: Those Unpredictable Prophets of God (by Virginia Smith)
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